[Lunchmeat chats with TG Finkbinder]
THE REDEEMER (aka CLASS REUNION MASSACRE) is a film that divides opinion like few others. Classy proto-slasher or objectionable morality play? Like SAVAGE WEEKEND and BLACK CHRISTMAS before, it pre-empts the slasher craze that kicked off big time in 1978 with John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN.
Here, our very own Lunchmeat gets the lowdown form the movie's villain himself:
Q: When you first got a hold of the script, what was your first thought?
What's this supposed to be about? A job's a job. Might be fun. Might be a break. Why two thumbs (actually that came during pre-production)? It reminded me a little of Ten Little Indians, And Then There Were None, and Theater of Blood (a personal favorite). I was, and continue to be, very much a film buff. I taught History of American Film as a college course. When I was twelve, I memorized every actor (Lead and Supporting) who every won or was nominated for an Oscar. Beulah Bondi: The Gorgeous Hussy (neat title), and Of Human Hearts; Militza Korjus: The Great Waltz; Albert Basserman: Foreign Correspondent. You get the picture. Mildly precocious.
Q: How did you become involved in the making of 'The Redeemer'?
A friend of mine, Linda Elbaz (then Linda Blatt), saw an ad for the audition in The Washington Post. I was literally just out of college (grad school) by a few weeks, looking for a job, as all actors must perpetually do, and figured, why the hell not? I did a screen-test -- if you want to call it that -- it was conducted in a movie theater -- and there was a camera -- I think there was film in it -- and the producer, director, and a cameraman were on hand. After the audition I was feeling good karma, so I went out and bought a PhoneMate (I believe that's what it was called) so I could hear whether or not I got the part, even if I weren't in. Very high tech. The director, Connie Gochis, and the producer's wife, Jessie Tromberg, thought I was the bees knees. What they liked was the fact that I was ordinary -- how flattering -- yet somehow menacing enough. The producer, Sheldon Tromberg, liked some other guy, I can't remember his name, but I saw his screen-test, and he was pretty good. I have no idea if anyone else was in on the decision-making process. I came home one afternoon about ten days after the audition, and the red light was blinking on the PhoneMate. It had done its special brand of magic. Connie and Jessie won out. I got the part. Sheldon did come quickly around and supported my efforts, bless his pointed little head, but I'm not sure how tactful it was that he told me all of this. But then again, he wasn't exactly known for his subtleties.
Q: Constantine S Gochis - I've found absolutely nothing on the guy. What was he like? Demanding? Appearance? Demeanor? Any movie set superstition? Was Constantine his real name?
Connie was a pretty nice guy. Easy going. Probably schnockered most of the time. He liked his drinky. There was booze on the set during filming. I abstained -- too much at stake, I figured -- and perhaps some nascent sense of responsibility. He was short, balding, a moustache, a friendly face. In his fifties at the time, I think -- but maybe at that point in my life, I thought everyone who was older than I, was in his fifties. Connie was a senior editor at NBC. After the filming, I never saw nor heard from him again, so I can't help you with a lot of details. His wife was much younger than he. Kind of attractive. Kind of a flower child. Nice. They had my wife and me over for dinner. Fettuccini Alfredo. We thought it to be very continental at the time. Now I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot coronary by-pass. The wife also did the storyboards. They looked pretty nifty. I wish I had one. I'd frame it. I do have a copy of the original poster framed: Where the Omen left off, The Redeemer begins. Actually, The Redeemer was made before The Omen, but it was released afterwards, and they wanted to cash in on its immense popularity. But they couldn't find a distributor at first for The Redeemer. Finally, Dimension Pictures bit. They were just beginning as a distribution arm, now they do some of the best horror pics in the business. I think they didn't know how to promote it. Tangentially (blabberbox Sheldon, again), I was able to infer that they didn't think I made much of a celluloid impact, so they decided to shift the advertising focus to the kid. But I'm the one doing this interview, so screw 'em. : -- )
Q: In your own words, what do you think the film as a whole was trying to say?
I'll self-delete any expletives, and simply say, Well, I'm not rightly sure, Ryan. Bottom line: they wanted to make money, and traditionally, horror films -- good, bad or atrocious, tend to be moneymakers. It was also an available tax write-off at the time. Such loopholes have since been closed. I suppose if I elect to be high-falutin', I could talk about religious parables, retribution against the sinners of the earth, and the tragedy of a good man gone bad, but that's way too lofty.
Q: How was the feel of the shoot....the atmosphere. Was it always tight around the set or was it pretty laid back? The reason I ask this is because of the subject matter of the film. It's a very serious one.
Honestly, I got along with everybody. I sort of felt it was my responsibility being the titular lead and all. There were a couple of the "victims" whose talent I thought was pretty minimal, but I didn't let them know that. After hours, we did manage to whoop it up, even though the film is somewhat somber in its tone. I remember especially liking Michael Hollingsworth because he was full of gossipy fun, Jeanetta Arnette because she was talented, if a trifle highstrung, Nikki Barthen because she was so rich she could do anything she wanted, Eric Pedersen because he was nimble, and John Beymer because he had a good eye for the mise en scene. I remember that a member of the crew was on smack, and she got dismissed. This was sad; she had a kid. Eric Pederson suffered a thirty foot fall onto concrete. He was showing off. Oops. His good looks were forever altered. There was a steamy affair or two that lasted as long as the filming. Fairly typical. The only time I pulled rank was when the artistic director spent three hours obsessively jabbing at my face in order to apply make-up for the scene in the theater with the puppet and the sword. His results were horrific ( and not in a good, horror movie kind of way, either). I let the Powers That Be know in no uncertain terms that I wasn't going in front of a camera looking like Ethel Merman about to belt out "Rose's Turn." They fully understood, or humored me, because they knew I was right, and they got the artistic director's assistant do a more gentle, deft job in applying the melty gooey Phantom of the Opera make-up that you now see onscreen. Otherwise, I was highly cooperative and professional. Quite the pussycat.
Q: What was your shooting schedule? How long did you shoot?
I was up at 5:30, which wasn't a problem because even then, I was an early riser. After make-up, we shot, and we wrapped when we reached our goal for the day. About 2-3 pages per day were shot. As it has been said many times before, you need a lot of patience when shooting a film. It never bothered me. We almost never rehearsed, but I spent the down time studying the script. We shot for about four weeks during July in 1976.
Q: Did you have to drive yourself to and from the set every day?
No. The entire film was shot at the Staunton Military Academy and the surrounding environs of Staunton, Virginia. The school had a long and impressive history, but it had recently fallen on less glorious times and summarily closed its doors to students. The producers leased the property for a month, and since a good deal of the movie takes place at a school, this made pragmatic sense. We lived in the dorms. No air-conditioning. I brought a fan. The Statler Brothers lived across the street. Woodrow Wilson was born in the town. Staunton was conservative, historic, and somewhat picturesque. And hot. Very hot.
Q: The scene where you're preaching in the church. I thought that particular scene was exceptionally well done.
Well, thanks. That's nice to hear. I guess that character is a little more concrete, a little more human than the more grotesque abstractions: the hunter, the puppetmaster, clown-guy, flame-thrower guy, et. al. The parishioners in that scene were all locals. Not too hard to tell. Then there was this guy in black whose part never did make much sense; he was supposed to be a Bible salesman or something and somehow linked to the murders. His role has no connection to the plot, and you may not even be aware he's in the film except that his appearance just compounds the complications of the storyline. Christopher Flint played the kid. He actually went on to have a career in Washington-area theater for awhile. He won a supporting actor Helen Hayes Award for his work in Into the Woods. Coincidentally, I taught both his niece and nephew several years after the film was released -- and several worlds apart. I felt badly for him because we had to do retakes in January 1977, and he had to submerge himself in a quarry; it was freezing out. He shivered so hard his lips turned blue. What, and give up show business? A little trooper was he.
Q: Where was the church? If you recall, what denomination? Did any of the church alumni make their way into the film?
The church was in Staunton. Some Anglican denomination. I forget which one. Presbyterian? Methodist? Not Episcopal. Definitely not Catholic. No osiers. It smelled musty like old books with dry rot. I've noticed a lot of old churches smell like that. As the minister, they dyed my hair black and poofed it up. I thought I looked fat and flitty. Now I don't think so. Kind of handsome Funny how time can alter one's perception.
Q: Have you appeared in any other films? If so, spill the beans.
I have. In several. But as an extra or a day player. Most noticeably in The Greek Tycoon (a Secret Service Agent), and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (as a Senate aid). I made a bunch of dough in Hair, but sadly, tragically, all my truly great moments were relegated to the cutting room floor. On Joe Tynan, I was also Rip Torn's stand-in. I am considerably younger than he, but the grand fellow made a point of bringing up the fact that he was much thinner than I when he was my age. Like I needed to know. He liked to fish, and every spare moment he had, he was disappearing to do just that. Sort of eccentric. Melvyn Douglas was superb. What a career. What a gentleman. Meryl Streep was also in that film -- an early one in her career. She was pretty wonderful too. John Cazale, her boyfriend, had just died of cancer, and you could tell she was still reeling from that. Yet she remained a total class act. One day at lunch, I taught her a Baltimore accent, which she picked up in about 15 seconds. What an ear. She had recently finished filming The Deer Hunter, and the Pittsburgh dialect is not too terribly different than that of Baltimore's -- nasal and twangy. But still, she was remarkable. A gentle presence. I was also an extra in F.I.S.T. and had to stand behind Sylvester Stallone in a scene. A nice guy. He wears lifts but evidently carries a big stick. Doing extra work was a drag. They treat you like something less than human. Even though at the time it paid what I considered good money, I stopped doing it because it was abasing. Who needs that?
Q: What was the most fun moment you recall during the shoot?
Driving around in Nikki Barthen's Porsche. My wife and I having a complimentary dinner at the Holiday Inn (I know). Walking around the town. Drinking beer in a local bar.Watching the Disney version of Peter Pan at the local movie palace.
Q: Most depressing moment on set?
When Eric Pedersen took the plunge. When that make-up guy wouldn't stop jabbing my face. But not much else, I had a good time even though I never thought we'd be boffo at the box office. I tend to take things in stride. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, well I have a lot of other interests, and my friends and family always take precedence over more mundane matters such as screen stardom.
Q: I dug out my old vhs tape on Halloween and gave it a go around. I noticed that the Redeemer had a large silver ring on his finger that seemed to be intentional by the cinematographer. It's more evident during the 'grim reaper' scene.. Did this hold any purpose?
It held no purpose whatsoever. It was my ring. My wife brought it back to me from Spain. The producer liked it and asked me to wear it. I'm not sure why John Beymer chose to give it a close-up. Sheldon probably told him to because he thought it looked biblical. I've since lost it. Too bad.
Q: You explained the double thumb in our previous interview almost four years ago. For those who haven't read it, can you give your take on the meaning of that ''ill placed'' thumb?
Well, according to Sheldon Tromberg he was standing in his garden and had a vision that I should have two thumbs. The mark of Cain, or something like that. It never made much sense to me or to anyone who has ever seen the film. I just went along with it and didn't want to tell Sheldon it was a pain in the gluteus maximus. When it got hot, and believe me, it got hot, it would start to melt and slide off my hand. I had to position it in an awkward, unnatural way in order to keep the damn thing from taking a nosedive.
Q: The puppet. OR your evil sidekick. What was that all about!?
Some sort of supernatural power I was supposed to have in animating non-living things. I was a juggernaut of righteousness, and so therefore, of course, had the elemental powers of the universe at my command. It was actually some dancer trussed up in a clown costume. I can't remember her name. Lauren, maybe. She only worked on the shoot for one or two days and I seldom saw her face because she had that head thing on. The puppet, like much of the film, is obscure, but don't try to read too much into it. Let it remain an enigma; it enhances the mythology.
Q: Were any of the actors demanding? Snobs? Or, were all of them genuinely good people?
I don't know whether or not they were "genuinely good people." I don't have enough moral fiber to make that assessment. But they were nice to me. They had to be. I was the star. Seriously, I got along with everyone and had a lot of laughs. No one was really in a position to be too demanding; they were kids and lucky to have jobs.
Q: The sink bowl drowning scene was uncharacteristically violent compared to some of the other 'demises' in the film. Do you think there was an ulterior motive the director displayed through this scene? Or, do you think it was simply for shock value?
That was a nasty little scene. Jeanetta and I highly enjoyed doing it.
She had to endure much abuse. She also had to hold her breath and not
blink her eyes. Now that's talent. The director had no ulterior motives.
It was in the script. Any subtext that may seem apparent is inferential.
Shock value? You betcha! Of course, there was the whole deal of washing
Q: In the scene between you and John the Lawyer, it seems as if you almost are at reason with him, explaining why you did what you did as the Redeemer. Was this the main revelation from the beginning?
Yes. That actually was intentional. That's the character's whole defense: to purge the world of sinners -- starting with his high school's graduating class. I guess he went to school with all these perceived evildoers, and now, in his twisted psyche, he rationalizes that it's time to start cleaning house by beginning at the grass roots level.
Q: At the present moment, you're a high school English teacher. Do your co-workers, (and especially the students) get a kick out of your stint as a masked maniac? How about the immediate family?
I teach English, and I'm also the Coordinator for the APEX Scholars Program -- a signature program for highly-motivated, academically inclined students. Walter Johnson High School is among the most rigorous high schools in the nation. You'll have to pardon my PR. My colleagues are bemused. I'm not sure they're fully cognizant of the magnitude of my starpower. My students however, love the fact that I made this film. They Google me. They buy the film (recently for $1.00 in a Bargain Bin but currently $17.00 on Amazon -- I was told this by a student -- I didn't look it up -- so help me ). They have adolescent get togethers and watch it. I can only imagine the running commentary. For my part, I threaten them with similar fates to those in the film if they prove lax or recalcitrant. The whole fixation on this flicker fascinates me. My daughter has never seen this movie; now an adult, she still doesn't want to be scared of her daddy. I guess I'm scary enough on my own terms. My most-indulgent wife has sat through it patiently too many times. This doesn't mean we have weekly screenings. About every 5 years or so. My friends who have seen it, remain my friends by keeping their opinions to themselves.
Q: If asked to reprise your role as The Redeemer in a sequel, would you take the bull by the horns?
Money talks. Are you planning on brokering a deal? Is my public clamoring? It reminds me of that woman on a Seinfeld episode when Kramer goes Hollywood; she was in a Three Stooges short -- a big event in her life -- as Cosmo ascends the apartment house's dingy staircase, her chance of glory once again rears its head, she extends a plaintive arm and cries out in one, long, primal, anguished shriek "Kraaaamer!" I think her moment has passed.
Q: A book and movie you can't live without?
I just finished a book about Katharine Hepburn (I'm quite fond of biographies) that focused upon her Lavender Life. That was interesting to a point, but then it got too sketchy and speculative. Too many typos too. I am an English teacher, let's not forget. I'm currently reading Stolen Child. Fascinating. It's about a changeling elfspawn who is switched with a human baby, and then years later, re-swapped. I like it because the narrative is matter-of-fact, and so therefore, has the ring of authenticity despite the impossibility. I have tons of favorite films, and they don't necessarily have to be good ones: Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Tom Jones, Bell, Book and Candle, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Pinnochio, Theater of Blood, Female on the Beach, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, All About Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Miracle at Morgan's Creek,The Maltese Falcon,Children of Paradise, The African Queen,The Lair of the White Worm, King of Hearts, Summertime,The Producers(1968), Don't Look Now -- I better stop now because this could get out of hand.
Q: Favorite scene in The Redeemer?
The shower scene with Miss Jeanetta Arnette. I also like the special effect when Michael Hollingsworth gets it in the head with the scimitar.
Q: I'd like to thank you on behalf of Justin Kerswell for allowing us to ask you these questions.
You're most welcome. I still find it rather quaint that there's an interest in this film after 30 years. I had a career of about 15 years in the theater, and not quite 15 minutes of fame, and although I did much stagework of which I am proud, this seems to be the one that comes back to haunt me. Obviously, it's the medium, but I guess there's something else that attracts and resonates -- something that puzzles me, but also tickles me. Who knew? Go figure.
Read the review of CLASS REUNION MASSACRE.